Just up the road from the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel is the Wellcome Collection, we went for a little cultural excursion after our meal at Gilbert Scott. The current exhibition is called DIRT investigating the filthy reality of everyday life. It presents a full history of squalid truths and grimy facts, explaining and illustrating our relationship with dirt and the attitudes surrounding it, whilst also displaying some intriguing works of art.
The Wellcome Collection is a wealthy institute and the exhibitions here tend to be thorough and inspiring, DIRT is no exception. It is beautifully organised in a series of rooms, highly engaging and exciting. I was pleased to find lots of young adults and teenagers looking round while I was there on a Saturday afternoon, it is clear that this is a venue that encourages interest in art and culture. It also helps that the exhibition is free!
The show begins with the concept of cleanliness and household dirt, looking at the tradition of cleaning in 17th century homes, particularly at the practice in Delft in the Netherlands. Several illuminating paintings by Pieter de Hooch depict the Dutch housekeeper’s obsessive cleaning habits, and the pride in keeping a polished immaculate house.
I found the hygiene exploration the most interesting, exploring a part of our history in which dirt and contamination have been devastating, examining the cholera epidemic in England that spread rapidly and killed hundreds within days. This room includes, a vial of infected water, maps showing the route of contamination, and other amazing artefacts. A beautiful drawing shows a woman’s face, before and after the disease has affected her. We also see photos from the Glasgow Royal Infirmary Hospital in 1861 where hygiene was totally inadequate and infection spread horrifically fast and many patients died from postoperative ‘ward fever’.
A fascinating and inspiring finale comes in the form of a feature on ‘Fresh Kills’, the largest municipal landfill in the world, situated on Staten Island in America. It is nearly three times bigger than Central Park with a peak higher than the Statue of Liberty. One photo of the site is shown above. Fresh Kills was closed in 2011 and over the next 20 years they hope to transform this area into a public park. Fittingly the name will be changed from ‘Fresh Kills’ to ‘Fresh Waters’.
DIRT continues at the Wellcome Collection until 31 August 2011, see more information here.